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Down Argentine way

It has always puzzled me—and I’m not the only one—that so few successful operas have been composed in Spanish. It is not, heaven knows, a lack of idiosyncratic melody; Spain and its erstwhile colonies burst at the seams with it, and the many dance rhythms lend flavor to whole continents. There is a homegrown style of light opera, zarzuela, but that has seldom lurched across ethnic boundaries even within Spain.  

When I was in Tarragona, I was severely reprimanded: zarzuela was Castilian and should never be sought in Catalunya. In America, in English, zarzuela is hopeless. Spanish singers have been among the reigning glories of opera for centuries, but Spanish song is not what they are famous for singing.

Spain’s national opera was composed by a Frenchman to a libretto in French based on a French novella: Carmen. It is set in Seville, as are famous operas composed by Italians, Austrians, Russians, even P.D.Q. Bach (The Civilian Barber). But who can name a Sevillean opera by a Spaniard? No se.

Perhaps the language itself is the problem. Spanish is so full of grandiloquence that when it is pronounced with the proper vital, nostril-flaring impulsion, it hardly requires melody to illustrate a passionate point. Figures of speech, over-the-top pronunciamentos and accusations all sound more operatic here, or more than operatic, other than operatic. “I shall breast-feed a boot,” cries the masochistic María in Ástor Piazzola’s “tango opera,” María de Buenos Aires, playing through Sunday at Le Poisson Rouge on Bleecker Street, in a production by Opéra Hispánica. (I’m quoting the subtitles; they could be wrong.)

Too, there all those words ending in “s,” accented esses that close words, plurals, adjectives, pronouns. You can’t sing in the Italian manner if you can’t conclude in vowel outcries, ornamented or merely defiant. Esses shut you down. This is intense and poetic and operatic, but it’s not vocally operatic, at least in the way we are used to.

There are other reasons you might wonder if María de Buenos Aires is an opera. No real story is enacted, no characters live within a drama—they merely report. A great deal of the show is spoken narration; other parts are imaginatively danced. The only singers are Solange Merdinian (as María) and Marcelo Guzzo (a sort of narrator/commentator called El Payador). They have strong voices and their performances thrill; they act up a storm as well.

But the mysterious El Duende (Gerardo Gudiño), a “nocturnal spirit” who summons María from nowhere, and summons her again from quick and merciful death to haunt the tango-ridden streets (if I got the story right), is merely a man in makeup, striking poses and reading unmemorized lines with menace. He declaims well, but the notebook makes us doubt they come from his soul.

The faint story: María appears in B.A. (a country girl? a slum girl?), is lost, assaulted, raped, murdered; rises from her wretched funeral (summoned by El Duende), learns to tango, involves herself with more men, is assaulted, raped and murdered. What a difference a dance makes!

This is not clearly acted, and though the attendant dancers are good (Daniel Fetecua Soto was the choreographer, Beth Greenberg the stage director), we have seen better, or perhaps merely seen such things in less cramped theaters. What Piazzola has written is more song cycle than opera, and the singers must be strong enough to hold interest during the brief duration of the piece. Merdinian and Guzzo are strong, and their emotions, especially’s María’s defiant miseries, affecting. But it is a commentary on the story not an illustration of it.

The purely musical excitement of the event, for me, lay in the orchestration of the songs for an ensemble of nine. Daniel Frost Hernández Jorge Parodi led the extraordinary band, and the music was arranged to display their particular gifts.

The violinist (Sami Merdinian), the flutist (Nathalie Joachim) and the percussionist (Hector Flores) made especially intricate and subtle contributions, producing sounds from their instruments that might have emerged from the alleys of Buenos Aires at nightfall, while María had a special relationship indeed with the national folk instrument, the bandonéon, a small accordion, wielded by JP Joffre.


  • Quanto Painy Fakor says:

    Don’t forget that the tango was originally a dance for men.

  • michaelredmond says:

    You’re so right, Cieca, as usual. There are lots of fabulous zarzuelas that meet the standards of Viennese operettas. We get the operettas all the time. We get no zarzuelas. LAS GOLONDRINAS (The Swallows, 1914) by Jose Maria Usandizaga is a particular favorite of mine. As a rule, the U.S. gives pretty short shrift to Spanish, Latin American concert music, too. Wonderful composers, too little known and heard.

  • m. croche says:

    This was a pretty irritating review to read. My impression is that the critic hadn’t done his homework in advance.

    Why the wholly irrelevant digression on Zarzuela and Spanish opera in general for a review of “Maria”?

    Piazzolla called the work an “orbita”, not an opera.

    Is it possible that the Goblin/El Duende in this production is a representation of Ferrer himself, or more generically a poet -- thus the notebook is a marker of his profession, not the crutch for an unprepared actor?

    Given the surrealism of the text, and the mystical plot, I would neither expect nor want the action to be melodramatically “illustrated”. That would coarsen the work’s emphatically poetic qualities.

    Why do the reviewer call the bandoneon a national folk instrument when it was brought to Argentina by (urban) immigrants and used for urban music-making?

    “Maria” has been in circulation for quite some time now, but this review reads as though this is the first timyates reviewer had ever encountered the work. There’s really been quite a bit written about “Maria”, Piazzolla and Ferrer -- yet instead of discussing them and their work, the reviewer wastes time musing whether or not Spanish is a sufficiently “operatic” language.

    • m. croche says:

      Haha, “obrita”‘, not “orbita”. Autocorrect fail.

    • armerjacquino says:

      Why the wholly irrelevant digression on Zarzuela and Spanish opera in general for a review of “Maria”?

      Harsh. There *are* very few successful operas in Spanish and the question posed at the top of the review is about language and not geography.

      • m. croche says:

        Successful with whom?

        Clumping together countries with distinct cultures and distinct histories can often lead to error and confusion. In discussing English-language opera, we don’t talk about “England and its erstwhile colonies.” I really fail to see how the state of opera in Spain in 1820 is particularly relevant to Piazzolla’s work. Heck, with the selection of the new pope, we’ve had a reminder how much influence Italians have had on Argentinian culture. And Piazzolla spent many of his formative years in New York.

        Another example of the reviewer’s laziness which irritated me was this:

        “I shall breast-feed a boot,” cries the masochistic María in Ástor Piazzola’s “tango opera,” María de Buenos Aires, playing through Sunday at Le Poisson Rouge on Bleecker Street, in a production by Opéra Hispánica. (I’m quoting the subtitles; they could be wrong.)

        Look, the libretto is easily found online. It took me all of 20 seconds. Ferrer is a significant poet and his collaboration with Piazzolla also included some very successful songs (Amelita Baltar’s rendition of “Balada para una loca” was a big hit at the time). Ferrer was an imaginative mythologizer of Porteño history and culture. His libretto is filled with complex imagery, his vocabulary is rich in local color. To treat his diction as something to giggle over -- in effect saying:”Hee hee, isn’t that weird? Maybe the subtitles are wrong” -- strikes me as a refusal to take the work seriously. I really dislike seeing such offhandedness in a review.

        I also think if the reviewer had taken the time to read the libretto more conscientiously (or read it at all) he would have been in a better position to actually attempt an interpretation of the piece- why all these strange things happen -- rather than just to highlight a couple of “plot” points. Ferrer’s “Duende” (a role he took himself when he toured with Kremer’s band back in the 90s) draws on Garcia Lorca and develops it in his own idiosyncratic way -- yet the reviewer seems to have no clue what he is or what he should represent.

        I think we’d be somewhat puzzled if the first half of every Wagner review was a meditation on the question: “Was Wagner a Nazi?”, if the first half of every review of a Schubert symphony dealt with the question “Do homosexuals compose differently?” Some questions can be interesting, some facts can be “true”, without necessarily being relevant at all times. If this was supposed to be a “think piece”, then the reviewer completely forgot his thesis by the end of the essay. But I think this was supposed to be a review, and in a review I expect the writer to have some familiarity with the work being considered and for the writer to be able to use that knowledge to evaluate the performance.

      • m. croche says:

        And since I’ve worked myself into a froth, I might as well remark on this:

        he only singers are Solange Merdinian (as María) and Marcelo Guzzo (a sort of narrator/commentator called El Payador).

        There are many roles sung and spoken by men in “Maria” -- usually one or two is enough to cover them all in some fashion or other. The sung ones include not just “La Voz de un Payador” but also “Porteño Gorrión con Sueño”, “Ladrón Antiguo Mayor”, “Analista Primero” (the other psychoanalyst roles are spoken), and “Una Voz de Ese Domingo”. Other spoken roles include the “Voces des Tres Marionetas Borrachas de Cosas”, “Voces de Amasadores de Tallarines”, “Voces de Tres Albañiles Magos”, and “Voces de Espectadores”. The reviewer missed out on all of this. Hard to miss in the libretto, and I find it difficult to believe that the program only credits Guzzo with singing one role.

  • louannd says:

    I first head in a music history class that bullfighting always took precedence over opera in Spain. I also have read that opera borrowed much from the Spanish theater tradition. Did theater and bullfighting have an edge?

    • m. croche says:

      There was a substantial “Hetztheater” in Vienna during the 18th century -- for the amusement of audiences, animals (lions, tigers, bears, boars, oxen, foxes etc.) were tortured by men and dogs and then subsequently killed. It burned down in the 1790s and was not rebuilt. I’m not sure anybody’s demonstrated that the “Hetztheater”‘s presence and/or absence had much measurable effect on other forms of theatergoing.

      (The street to this day is still called the “Hetzgasse” and, as Gerhard Roth mordantly noted, the site of Hetztheater later became the offices of Karl Kraus’ epochal social-critical magazine “Die Fackel”. )

      Bear-baiting was also quite popular in Shakespeare’s day, and look at the amount of good theater that came out of Elizabethan England.

  • Will says:

    Ever hear of La Vida Breve by de Falla? It’s an opera, it’s in Spanish, and there are two recordings by Victoria de los Angeles to demonstrate its virtues.

    • Quanto Painy Fakor says:

      Here’s the man himself!

    • aronocity says:

      La Vida Breve has some very beautiful music, but it also has one of the weakest librettos set by a notable composer. It’s really a shame, but it certainly is worth a listen to once in a while.

  • Erdgeist says:

    I also have wondered about the question posed at the top of this review (Falla’s work and zarzuela notwithstanding, it is not a language with many operatic representatives). But I’m always suspicious about linguistically motivated conclusions, especially when I read something like word-final Ss get in the way of singing in the Italian manner. Well, OK, maybe they could sing in a Spanish manner, where word-final Ss are welcome. (These Ss have nothing on German’s heavy consonant clusters, and that didn’t stop a few Germans from writing some successful operas.)

    I don’t like zarzuela, but Angie is pretty idiomatic, and her Spanish diction pretty good, on that clip

  • Camille says:

    Marina, Spanish opera by E. Arrieta
    the famous aria “Pensar en el”, as sung by the great Montserrat Caballé.

  • Krunoslav says:

    “Spanish singers have been among the reigning glories of opera for centuries, but Spanish song is not what they are famous for singing.”

    Four words:

    Victoria de los Angeles

    (One might also cite Brooklyn-born, Spainsh-raised Emilio de Gogorza; Conchita Supervia; Montserrat Figueras; and Maria Bayo)

    • Will says:

      De los Angeles left an almost encyclopedic record of Spanish song on disc from the era of the Moorish occupation to the very real glories of the 20th century. She was VERY famous for singing Spanish song.

    • And lets not forget the zarzuela anthologies by Domingo, Caballe, Carreras, Kraus and Lorengar. As well as the spanish recital discs of Lorengar, Caballe, Carreras (the last one full of XXth century Spanish song lit, amazing) and Berganza.

      I was not going to say anything, but I am glad someone did say something first. That comment about Spanish singers not being well known for singing Spanish stuff rub me the wrong way.

  • zinka says:

    HERE is the REAL “Argentinian way,”otherwise known as:

    Las Muerte de Bel Canto”

    Negri……you make Olive Middleton sound like Ponselle

    but she is fun..and even sometimes she is not bad…..

  • Agnese di Cervia says:

    Piazzolla caled María de Buenos Aires an operita (little opera), not an obrita. And the song mentioned above is Balada para un loco, not una loca.

    • Agnese di Cervia says:

      Also agree with the commentaries about the reviewer disinformation.

    • m. croche says:

      Ooops on both counts. As far as “obrita” is concerned, I got the story a bit backwards -- I think perhaps Piazzolla called it that at an early stage, but later changed it“¿Qué es esto? ¿Una cantata, un oratorio, una ópera, un musical…?”, se preguntaron. “Y le pusimos ‘operita’ por ‘obrita’, pensando que lo más lindo sería una casa muy suntuosa con una puerta humilde”, explica el artista uruguayo. And for some reason, I though there were two versions of “Balada por un loco”, depending on the sex of the singer. Not quite sure how I came to believe that. Thanks for the corrections.

  • lucy brown says:

    I’m thrilled Opera Hispanica is staging Spanish and Latin American works. There is some lovely stuff that’s in danger of disappearing. Personally, I’ve spent YEARS trying to track down a score for the lovely Cuban operetta Cecilia Valdes. I’d love to stage the damn thing, but I’m losing hope. Since the composer, Gonzalo Roig, was afraid his music would be stolen, he personally put every copy on the musicians’ stands before every performance, and gathered them up at the end of the show. I understand the University of Havana is working to reconstruct the score using old recordings, but God knows how long it will be before it reaches the U.S. I also know there’s a man in Puerto Rico who has a full score, but he won’t share…

  • La Valkyrietta says:

    I would not accuse the reviewer of chauvinism, that can go both ways. I remember once a Spanish friend told me New York City was not a ‘ciudad’. “Why?”, I inquired. Because every ‘ciudad’ has a ‘plaza de toros’; if not, it is a ‘pueblo’. I replied, “but New York City has an opera house” and he said that was true, but his expression seemed to say something was lacking.

  • Quanto Painy Fakor says:

    I just did a double take while watching this commercial and could not believe my eyes.

  • pasavant says:

    Nothing puzzling about it. There are no Spanish symphonies, violin concertos, or much of anything else, except for some totally unnecessary twanging on the guitar and pretty piano miniatures. The French have written the best Spanish music.

    • la vociaccia says:

      Spanish piano music is my favorite style to listen to and play. Soler’s sonatas and his fandango are a blast; Albeniz’s Iberia is a gorgeous suite, and Granados (especially Goyescas) I find more harmonically satisfying and delightfully challenging than much of Chopin. I don’t know what’s to be written off about it; it’s largely very infectious

  • La Valkyrietta says:

    “It has always puzzled me—and I’m not the only one—that so few successful operas have been composed in Spanish.”

    Maybe people in Spain were tired of singing by the time opera was invented.

    Still, they produced singers.